5 Ways Our Generation Has Ruined Being Offended
The last thing I want to do here is add my voice to the chorus of grumpy goofballs grumbling that people need to stop being so sensitive. There's nothing shameful about getting offended, and standing up for yourself after it happens is a lot harder than it seems, and folks should get hella props when they do it. So here you go, folks. Props. How many? Hella.
Buuuuut it's also gotten weird recently. Like, as getting offended becomes more and more popular and lucrative, there's become a bit of a disconnect between why we get offended and what we do about it. Am I saying that being offended has "sold out?" And that it was way better before getting popular ruined it? Am I being a social justice hipster? Uh, kinda -- but I wouldn't put it that way, exactly. Instead, I'd just point out that ...
We Seek It Out
A few weeks ago, BuzzFeed found and published a bunch of old jokes written by The Daily Show's new host, Trevor Noah. The Internet was freaked out to learn that this now-successful comedian had written a bunch of bad jokes four years ago. There was a medium-sized kerfuffle -- people called Noah sexist and Antisemitic, and speculated that he would be immediately fired. All over jokes like this:
Wait wait wait, those aren't the right ones -- that's just a stupid dick joke and a jab at Israel, not rampant misogyny and Antisemitism. Sorry, I think the real problem was this joke:
My problem with that story is that it's virtually impossible to find a comedian who has never written or told a joke that was taken in a way other than how he or she intended. You can dig through my tweets and find something that'll upset you, and a lot of jokes that just plain suck, if that's how you feel like spending your afternoon, you unfathomably sad creature. Hell, it's impossible to find any artist anywhere who hasn't accidentally imbued one of their creations with subtext or implications that are weird, disturbing, or out of step with their actual beliefs. Scratch that -- you don't even have to be a creative person. Has anyone reading this never accidentally hurt someone's feelings? The fact is, every comedian has experimented with a "fat chick" joke, just like every musician has experimented with free-form jazz -- yes, they should be ashamed, but we have to forgive them and move on for the good of humanity.
Now, I'm not saying that offensive jokes are okay or that we shouldn't call them out -- they're not okay and they should be called out when we hear them. Because that's how comedians learn and that's how society stays healthy. Chris Rock and Louis CK have written great bits about racism -- do you think they never misworded those jokes, or delivered them the wrong way and offended people, or wrote versions that came off other than the way they intended? And yet, pop comedy is better off because those bits exist, right? I think this guy put it best: We all need to call out shitty jokes, and then give the comedian room to recover and try something new, because we're not Roman emperors dishing out sentences here. We're all just people trying to find laughs in a world that's frustratingly short of them.
Just to be as clear as possible, I'm not saying that you're wrong if you're offended by those jokes. There's no "wrong" or "right" thing to be offended by, because it's an involuntary human reaction and feelings, man, are hard to get a grip on. I'm saying that those jokes are old, and clearly experimental, so why fire him over it?
Of course, I don't even know how many of you actually care about Noah's jokes, because ...
We Have No Way Of Telling How Many People Are Actually Offended
Forget Trevor Noah -- I'm going to take one step back in time and talk about "Shirtgate." Remember "Shirtgate?" Depending on your disposition, you probably think that was either "that time a member of the scientific community sullied one of their most glamorous recent accomplishments by wearing a stupid, sexist shirt," or "that time an innocent scientist wore a fun shirt and Internet feminists lost their shit about it."
In reality, you're both wrong, because the truth is that it was just "that time the media made a big fucking deal out of nothing, because it was a slow news day." It turns out that the level of outrage on the Internet is far, far smaller than any of us think, because of how the Internet works and the fact that our brains have not evolved to deal with it.
See, the amount of outrage over any given "thing" is always going to be hilariously inflated. Ten thousand people getting angry about Shirtgate is all it takes to flood Twitter and your Facebook page with enough righteous rants to drown out all but the most dedicated puppy memes. But at the same time, 10,000 people is fucking nothing. That is an infinitesimally small number, but since our brains are still used to dealing with communities with a population of roughly 150, that seems like more than enough people to crush our tribe, burn our hovels, and carry off our livestock. So naturally we pay attention, because winter is coming and Jebediah needs his protein.
So while it's great that everyone has a voice, it's almost impossible to get a sense of perspective. Were we really mad about the shirt, or was it just a good mashup for stories? "I can't believe those feminazis can't understand what this guy actually did" versus "I can't believe casual misogyny had to sully this great moment." Were people really mad about Trevor Noah, or were we just killing time between Avengers trailers and the Game of Thrones season premiere? I genuinely have no idea, and neither do any of you, because we can't. Which is why it's such a shame ...
We Get Censor-y
When a Michigan college scheduled a screening of American Sniper and an offended student started a petition to cancel it, the college acquiesced and replaced the movie with a screening of Paddington. Eventually, they compromised and decided to show both movies at the same time (hopefully in different rooms), but as Badass Digest pointed out, this is pretty damn funny.
See, I read Mein Kampf in college. I also read The Communist Manifesto, the Bible, and Twilight. Because part of my education was learning to think fast and hard enough to be able to read a book without being helplessly forced to mold my entire life around any philosophy it passively mentioned, which is why I'm not writing this as a Neo-Nazi Communist Christian Mormon virgin right now. Even though that sounds like a pretty freaking funny character.
It seems like we do this a lot these days (remember #CancelColbert? Why wasn't it #ColbertPleaseApologize or #ColbertWhatGivesBroThatWasWeak?). And maybe this is my failing, because I'm pretty dumb sometimes, but I always thought that cultural criticism of popular art was about making it more inclusive, not driving the stuff we don't like out. When we complain about too many white male action heroes, for example, it's because we want more female and minority action heroes, not because we want to break Channing Tatum's kneecaps or something. We want every little kid to have a movie hero they can look up to that looks like them, because that shit is awesome and everyone deserves it.
Instead of canceling the screening, maybe watch the movie and write an article for your student newspaper about how weird it is that a movie about a sniper was released on Martin Luther King's birthday. Maybe just try to be funnier, smarter, and truer than the people in Hollywood, who think that no one wants to see interracial couples or that all black people are secretly zombies. It's not hard, because those people are really, really crazy.
But there's a flipside to that coin, because another problem is ...
We're Puppets Of Clickbait
A while back, a woman named Justine Sacco tweeted the joke "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just Kidding. I'm white!" During her eleven-hour flight, "the Internet" (that is, a bunch of living, thinking human beings) dug up her personal information, figured out what flight she was on, notified her employers that she was racist, and then someone drove to to the Cape Town airport to tweet photos of her as she arrived. In all these pictures, she's staring at her phone with a look of shock and horror as she learns that her professional life is over. The weird thing about this is that it had nothing to do with how offensive the joke was, and everything to do with the fact that it was a slow news day.
Sacco's tweet didn't take off because of natural viral-ness (virulence?), but because Gawker and Business Insider ran a bunch of clickbaity articles on a day right after the story about Duck Dynasty's homophobia had calmed down. Like a bunch of junkies seeking a new fix, we all jumped on the self-righteous bandwagon: "I am beyond horrified" tweeted one guy. "In light of the offensive tweet, I'm donating to @Care today," said another one, using the incident to remind all her followers what a great person she is.
Being offended is clickbait now. It's good marketing. It sells. So of course people are going to try and manufacture it, because that's what capitalism is. Clickbait sites are going to give every offensive thought any random person has as much exposure as possible for the same reason filmmakers keep cramming love triangles into movies and comedians keep telling edgy, offensive jokes: because we all want attention, and we all want to feel important, and because fuck it, it's a slow news day. And these slipping standards are dangerous, because ...
We Let The Conversation Be About Feelings
When Trevor Noah's offensive tweets blew up, CNN had a panel of talking heads debating what makes a joke too mean. In response, the conservative blogosphere blew up with a fresh wave of articles making the same old points: "stop being so thin-skinned" and "stop pretending to be offended." And every single one of those articles completely misses the point, because this was never about feelings.
My point is, there's more to these issues than making yourself feel like a badass for mocking nobodies with 150 followers on Twitter. There's more to this than finding a mistake in a comedian's past so you can "expose" him like an incredibly small-scale Woodward and Bernstein. There is more to this than Twitter.
When one comedian makes a joke about women as sex objects, it doesn't matter. When every comedian, and every movie, and every video game treats women as sex-prizes to be earned by strong, assertive men, then it contributes to a culture that doesn't value women as human beings. A culture where police officers don't believe female rape victims when their stories don't match what they've seen in movies and on TV. Then you have to call out the one comedian, because he or she is part of something far bigger and more evil than themselves.
It's the same with racism. No one calls out racist comedy because no one's allowed to make fun of black people -- they call it out because black men are killed by police at comically higher rates than white men, and studies have shown that we instinctively believe that black people are violent, emotionless killing machines. That's fucking weird, and pop culture seems like it might be part of the problem.
People don't want these issues to be real. They want them to be about feelings, because feelings are personal and can be given brief attention and then permanently dismissed. But the truth is that this isn't about feelings, and it isn't about thicker skin, because no one's skin is thick enough to stop a bullet.
JF Sargent is an editor and a columnist for Cracked with a new article every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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